Like mother, like daughter

August 15, 1997

Fifty years to the day after Britain left India, Indian fiction in English is flourishing. Andrew Robinson interviews its first literary dynasty

If you want to make your mark as a fiction writer, does it help to take a degree in creative writing? Can a person be taught to write literature in a class, or is it better to work alone - just you and a blank piece of paper - in the time-honoured way? Is literary talent a gift one must be born with, or can it be nurtured into existence by professionals?

The case of Kiran Desai, an Indian-born 25-year-old student of creative writing at New York's Columbia University, is especially interesting. She is the daughter of the well-known novelist Anita Desai, who in 1993 herself took up teaching as the first professor of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although Kiran has written little and published practically nothing, her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, four years in the making, is so fresh and funny and delicious that it defies comparison with any other novelist's. "She is very much her own writer," remarked Salman Rushdie, a keen admirer, introducing an extract from the novel in his new anthology of Indian writing, 1947-97, and in The New Yorker.

In the past few months, the novel has been snapped up for publication in 1998 by two leading literary publishers, Faber and Faber in the UK and Grove Press in the United States: even more impressive are the already scheduled translations into German, French, Italian and six other European languages. The excitement may not quite match that surrounding another recent first novel from India, The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy - but this time it will be more than justified by the quality of the writing. "Through tantalising descriptions and a host of engaging characters, Kiran Desai explores the urges that could be said to make us all, deep down, eccentric - the need we all have to be part of the crowd, and yet apart from it," says Julian Loose, Faber's editorial director.

To quote is irresistible. Mr Chawla, head clerk of a small-town bank, who is something of an Indian Captain Mainwaring, is despairing over his dreamy, incompetent, work-shy son Sampath, the novel's central character. "Mr Chawla looked over to where his son sat slouched over the table, his breakfast a spreading untidiness of crumbs around his plate. Before him a fly, vibrating like a machine, circled lower and lower over the bowl of fruit that had been bought by his wife after much deliberation in the fruit stall. Careful as a pilot, it settled on the ripest plum in the dish. Imagine its delight in finding such a thing indoors; it ran up and down to gauge the size of its discovery, stopping only occasionally to rub its thin back hands together like a greedy businessman. Sampath lifted it still atop the ruddy globe of fruit to get a better view of its long-snouted face when, right by his nose, there was a whoosh of movement and Mr Chawla, taking notice of his son's distressing lack of initiative, brought down the rolled-up newspaper Boom! hard on the fly, leaving nothing but feeble legs waving above a dirty jammy mess and a blur of iridescent wing."

Hullabaloo's humour, its most winning quality, is faithfully reflected in its author's conversation and that of her novelist mother, whose best-known novel, In Custody, is also a comedy, if much darker in tone than her daughter's book. Both Kiran, as a student, and Anita, as a teacher, are acutely sensitive, amused observers of human foibles, whether in India, or in Britain, where Anita spent about a year as a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge and Kiran took her O levels, or in the American academic scene, where Anita was a professor at Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges before MIT, and Kiran a student at Bennington and in Virginia before going to Columbia.

I catch up with them at an artists' retreat in Italy, the magnificent 15th-century Civitella Ranieri, near Perugia, where they are spending July together working on their writing - Kiran revising her novel and Anita (the first Indian fellow of the centre) completing a collection of short stories, her first since Games at Twilight (1979), which should appear next year. Working alone, at several thousand miles' remove from the writing workshops of Columbia and MIT, they discuss their views of creative writing as a profession, the writing of Hullabaloo, and the condition of Indian fiction in English, 50 years after independence.

Anita began writing as a child, far earlier than Kiran. The four novels she wrote in India in the 1960s and early 1970s embarrass her now, because she regards them as callow works. Would she have liked to have attended a writing workshop when she was starting out in her twenties? She says unhesitatingly: "I'd have been far too nervous and frightened. I don't think I'd have had the courage to face a workshop; I'd probably have just been silenced by it. For me writing was something very private and secret - but I don't know if it was better for that really. I was so much on my own, in a way self-indulgent. If I had been submitting my work to others, I would never have written those books, not in the way I wrote them." "Really?" says Kiran, surprised. "Yes, I would never had been able to present them to a public that I actually had to face. They were so wrought and emotional. And that's the danger, that a workshop may be making you as a writer - that you would have been different on your own." Kiran again: "I think that when everyone in the group, including the professor, says, 'Now it's OK', you're bound to end up with something dreadful."

Kiran admits: "I'm not really a workshop sort of person, I like to work on my own, so it's funny that I should have been encouraged by these programmes in America and helped by them in many ways." It was a writing class in Virginia that pushed her to get started when she was 20-21, she says. "But I'm still uncomfortable in these classes. Sometimes I just do not want to talk about what I'm doing. Then, to have to go to class and force yourself to speak is a nightmare. In America there is so much about sharing your work, sharing your feelings" - she giggles -"you're told that you have to tell all and then the class will almost be like a therapy session. Some professors won't stand for this kind of conversation; others encourage it, and make careers out of it."

Anita says firmly: "For some students, it's a pleasurable experience, a useful experience, for others it certainly is not. And they can both be sitting in your class, and you have to make sure that nobody is hurt by it."

Workshops have also taught Anita things about her own writing, she says, with a disarming smile. "I've become so much more conscious of structure and form. When I go back to my own work, I'm very conscious of things that I keep telling my students and I realise I must keep to them too now. It makes me more self-conscious as a writer. I don't know if that's a good thing. It's bad if it prevents you from writing what you've set out to write. But it's probably very helpful when you're at work on the second and third drafts, editing your own work. Perhaps the writing workshop doesn't make a better writer of you, but I think it certainly makes a better critic of you."

The attitude of individual professors is enormously important, both Kiran and Anita agree. And the system is often at fault. "It's a very unfair system," according to Anita. "You have some literary stars among the teachers, and the university will do almost anything to keep them, and then there are all these poor people who are struggling very hard to make a living. They end up doing most of the work in the department and getting very little in return." Moreover, at Columbia, unlike at MIT, the professors frequently change each semester. For a student working on a long piece, such as a novel, rather than on the more usual short stories, this means having to explain your work again from scratch to each new professor.

The atmosphere at Columbia differs greatly from that at MIT, because the students have different aims. At Columbia, they generally mean to become writers, while at MIT they are scientists mostly planning to stick at science and use the classes to write better scientific papers, rather than literature. At Columbia, says Anita, "the students are much more directed towards publication. My students come in a spirit of experiment. It's a much more relaxed atmosphere, much freer." Kiran: "Whenever you describe your classes, it always sounds like a much more playful atmosphere. At Columbia you hear this word 'networking' all the time. People are running about networking, instead of, you know, working. I find it destructive. Networking is a full-time profession."

About 30 pages of her novel were presented to workshops, she says. Some early drafts were also read by several professors, but not the final version. Though she found certain of the criticisms useful, she was distracted by the tendency of workshops to regard the extracts as complete pieces, like short stories, rather than as part of a novel. "When you should be concentrating on the work as a whole, you can't have your attention drawn away like this."

Her chief reader and critic was undoubtedly her mother. "Everyone asks me, 'What is it like - it must be so difficult, having a mother who's writing," she laughs. "And I've just found it so easy. I think it's probably because we're very close, have been to all these places together, lived together for so long, just the two of us. I can talk to her any time about any book I've read - it's probably the best education you could have." For Anita, the realisation that Kiran could write came quite late. "I remember when I was in Delhi one winter and you were in California at the Getty Museum as an intern, you wrote me wonderful letters about California and about the Getty Museum - really satiric, very vivid. And I thought you should put together these pieces. But you just dropped it. I don't think you'd have started writing without the encouragement of Bennington - they really gave you the idea you could write. If I'd said it, you wouldn't have believed me."

For four years, the growing novel was a subject of constant discussion between the two of them, helping Kiran to solve a number of tricky problems. In that time she obviously read the work of many other writers - she singles out Heller (Catch 22), Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), Marquez and "a lot of Calvino", but no Indian writers. Pressed, she admits: "I'm ashamed of how little Indian writing I've read. Once I started writing this book, I avoided it. Now I'd happily read it."

This may have a bearing on the originality of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Its setting, though by no means unique in Indian fiction (one thinks immediately of R. K. Narayan's inimitable Malgudi), is small-town not big-city India, unlike the majority of English-language Indian novels from Rushdie onwards. Its characters are emphatically not from the anglicised elite, nor do they include foreigners or Indians who live abroad. Its central situation - a young man who rebels against society by climbing into a tree and being taken for a holy man - involves religion and elements of mysticism that are eschewed by other English-language novelists ("mysticism is bad for novelists," asserts Rushdie provocatively in his anthology). Its language is rich, exquisite and often effortlessly funny, without any of the mannerisms and exhibitionism that disfigure the writing of, say, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Chandra or Shashi Tharoor. In sum, the novel taps real roots in Indian soil, while also being wonderfully accessible to non-Indians - in the tradition of, say, Narayan's novels and Satyajit Ray's films.

Understandably, both Anita and Kiran are cautious when I ask them - has modern Indian literature, 50 years after the British Raj, broken through into world literature? Conscious perhaps of the other artists living at the Civitella Ranieri, many of whom are bi- and tri-lingual in European literature, Anita says: "No, I don't think so, except in England. In other countries, they'll say 'I've heard of Tagore. I once read a poem by Tagore.' Others will, of course, have heard of and maybe read Rushdie, then throw in Naipaul as well - beyond that nothing. But I think they are aware that there are Indians writing, they just haven't got around to reading them." Kiran agrees, and adds: "I hope things are changing, because I think it is an exciting time in Indian fiction. My experience with America is that people have heard of Indians like Bharati Mukherjee, who deal with the immigrant experience. But no, I don't think there's an excitement for Indian literature - not yet. But there are good signs."

One of these signs is unquestionably Kiran Desai's forthcoming novel.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.

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